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Venezuela's Chavez Breaks Diplomatic Ties with Colombia's Uribe
It was hardly unexpected when left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo ChÁvez broke off diplomatic ties with neighboring Colombia on Thursday, July 22. The government of his archfoe, conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, had just accused Venezuela before the Organization of American States (OAS) of harboring Colombia's Marxist guerrillas. ChÁvez, as he's done in the past when he's felt provoked by Uribe, sounded the political air-raid sirens and warned Venezuelans to brace for a military attack from beyond its western border. "We would go to war with Colombia weeping," he declared in Caracas - with, by coincidence, Argentine national soccer coach and fellow leftist Diego Maradona, who was visiting, standing by his side. "But we would have to go."|
Duly noted, comandante. But the real news wasn't another rupture between Venezuela and Colombia and their famously egomaniacal Presidents. It was the surprising BogotÁ breach between the outgoing Uribe and his anointed successor, President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, who takes office Aug. 7. Uribe is one of the most popular Presidents in Colombia's history, thanks to his hugely successful military offensive against the vicious narco-guerrillas known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the restoration of security to much of the civil war–ravaged country. Uribe said recently that Colombia "must defend that achievement like lions" - which includes keeping the screws on ChÁvez, whom he's long accused of aiding the guerrillas, especially after finding alleged evidence of FARC-Caracas links in rebel computer files seized in 2008. (ChÁvez denies the charge, saying the files were fabricated.) (See pictures of Colombia's guerrilla army.)
Santos, Uribe's former Defense Minister, played a large role in the government's U.S.-backed success and even supported Uribe's bid to change Colombia's constitution to let the two-term President run for a third (which the nation's high court kiboshed earlier this year). But since his landslide election last month, it's become apparent that Santos, more even-tempered than the surly Uribe, hopes to patch things up with Venezuela. Economics is a big reason: the countries had record bilateral trade last year of $7 billion, most of it Colombian exports. But this year that flow is expected to plunge to less than $2 billion, owing largely to a boycott of many Colombian goods that ChÁvez ordered last year after Uribe agreed to let the U.S. use several of his nation's military bases. (Comment on this story.)
Even so, Santos' pragmatic diplomacy has incensed Uribe, who has called it "babosa" (idiotic). Most Colombian political observers say Uribe is furious about having to relinquish the presidency. And with just two weeks to go in his term, Uribe and his government hard-liners are "showing signs of a nervous breakdown," Daniel Coronell, a columnist for the weekly newsmagazine Semana, wrote this week. "The incoming President ... is no longer deemed sufficiently Uribista." Hence Thursday's action at the OAS meeting in Washington. The FARC has been crossing into Venezuela since well before ChÁvez came to power in 1999, but Uribe's OAS ambassador presented maps, photos, videos and eyewitness testimony indicating numerous guerrilla camps across the border that Colombia insists ChÁvez is coddling. "We have the right to demand that Venezuela not hide those wanted by Colombia," said the ambassador, Luis Alfonso Hoyos. ChÁvez's ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez, called it an "À la carte menu of false accusations."
Either way, was Uribe's move as much a gift to ChÁvez as it was a slap in the face to Santos? Venezuela's oil economy is slumping badly, violent crime is rampant, and ChÁvez's Socialist Party is facing unusually competitive parliamentary elections in September. As a result, say critics, ChÁvez - who last year won a constitutional referendum to abolish presidential term limits - is more than glad to exploit the Colombian rift to galvanize his political base at home. (It's one reason, they suggest, that he exhumed the remains of South American independence hero and Venezuela native SimÓn BolÍvar last week in hopes of proving that the icon died of foul play in Colombia in 1830 and not of natural causes.
Still, many Venezuelan analysts don't believe this was ChÁvez's ideal scenario - or that he can really afford a protracted rupture of ties with Colombia. Even though Venezuela has been able to replace some of its Colombian imports with products from other South American countries, the process of getting those substitutes to market has been plagued with inefficiency and corruption. Last month, 22,000 tons of food imported by a state-run company were discovered rotting at a port, exacerbating the country's grocery shortages. "The supply from Colombia was much more automatic," says economist Pedro Palma of the Caracas consulting firm MetroEconÓmica. "Trucks delivered it directly" from across the border.
That's partly why ChÁvez was actually "looking to lower the temperature with Santos' government," argues independent political analyst Ricardo Sucre. Another reason: "He was looking for a photo op [with Santos at his inauguration] to say, 'I'm not as bad as they portray me - here I am greeting my archenemy.' " ChÁvez, fearing an assassination plot against him (as he so often does), announced last week that he would not attend Santos' swearing-in ceremony after accusing Uribe of making hostile noises again. (See the top 10 news stories of 2009.)
The Venezuela-Colombia diplomatic split, as a result, may not last far beyond Venezuela's Sept. 26 elections or perhaps even Santos' inauguration. Still, even if Santos and ChÁvez mend fences, the issue of Caracas' ties to the FARC won't disappear. ChÁvez on Thursday again called Uribe a "mafioso oligarch." But even if he isn't directly aiding the FARC, ChÁvez risks being labeled an abettor of terrorists by a larger swath of the international community if he doesn't crack down on the FARC's presence in Venezuela. At the same time, Santos has to reassure that community that he won't repeat Uribe's excesses, which included - while Santos was Defense Minister - secretly sending commandos across the border to kill FARC leaders in Ecuador in 2008.
A big question is whether the Obama Administration, which, like the Bush II Administration before it, considers Colombia its most important ally in South America, prefers Uribe's hard-line or Santos' softer approach to ChÁvez's. As much as Washington approved of Uribe's offensive against the FARC, it's also likely to endorse a Colombian foreign policy that doesn't so often play into ChÁvez's anti-U.S. hand. For his part, asked about Thursday's dismal outcome during a visit to Mexico, Santos just barely hid his irritation, saying, "It is much better to remain silent and express no position at all. President Uribe is the President of Colombia until Aug. 7." After which, the hemisphere could use fewer nervous breakdowns between BogotÁ and Caracas.